Monthly Archives: November 2012

Make Major Life Changes by Altering Your Habits

Deep down, we’ve all got grandiose visions about how different our lives could be.  Maybe you see yourself several steps up the corporate ladder – enjoying the spoils a higher salary and greater prestige will bring – or maybe you envision a future where you’ve finally lost your spare tire and love handles after years of trying to lose weight.

But here’s the issue…  Tackling major life changes like these often seems so overwhelmingly stressful that we fail to make any progress at all!  As an example, losing 50 pounds might seem like such a daunting process that it’s just easier to go back to eating donuts and never get started in the first place.

As the saying goes, though, if you want to eat an elephant, you’ve got to start with one bite at a time!

In the case of making major life changes, these bites are the individual habits you can change in order to bring about a cumulatively large effect without being overwhelmed by the enormity of your goal.  In the example above, losing 50 pounds might sound too scary to even think about moving forward, but adding 10 minutes of exercise or cutting out a soda each day comes across as much more reasonable to hesitant goal-setters.

Here’s how to use the process of habit-forming to make major changes within your own life:

Step #1 – Set your major goals

As you might expect, the first part of setting habits in order to promote life changes is to determine what types of life changes you’d like to make in the first place!

Though your own goals will be unique, possible major changes to work towards include:

  • Reaching a healthy goal weight
  • Getting a promotion or industry award
  • Saving enough money for a down payment on a house
  • Running a marathon
  • Meeting the love of your life

Don’t limit yourself here or think that the goals that are important to you are either too silly to waste time on or too large to ever fully accomplish.  With the process of proper habit-forming, you truly can achieve anything you put your mind to!

Step #2 – Break major goals down into habits

Once you’ve got a major goal or two in mind, brainstorm a list of possible habits that could contribute towards your overall success in this arena.  Taking our weight loss example from before, any of the following habits could help get you one step closer to your future life-changing success:

  • Cutting out soda
  • Dropping fast food
  • Limiting desserts to one time each week
  • Substituting fruit for dessert three times each week
  • Not eating after 7:00pm
  • Eliminating processed starches from meals
  • Walking for 30 minutes a day
  • Adding 10 minutes of weight training a week

Obviously, some of these habits will have a bigger impact on your overall success in reaching your goal than others.  Adding a few sets of push-ups into your weekly routine, for example, is likely to have a much smaller impact on your overall weight than cutting out sugar will.  However, because the process of setting and following good habits isn’t necessarily a linear path, it’s a good idea to have both easy and more challenging habits at your disposal.

Step #3 – Tackle a single habit at a time

After you’ve compiled as many different habits as you can think of that will help bring you closer to your goal, choose one and start working on it exclusively – keeping everything else in your life the same.

Now, here’s where the variability in your habits’ relative difficulty becomes important.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of making any life changes, start with an easy habit and celebrate every day you complete it successfully.  On the other hand, if you’re feeling excited about starting the life-changing process, try starting with a more difficult habit in order to bring about results more quickly.

Whichever option you choose, focus on this single goal for at least three weeks before adding another habit into the mix (and even then, add new habits only if you feel confident in your ability to maintain your original goal).  Yes, this makes the process of making major changes to your life much slower, but it also makes it substantially more likely that you’ll successfully reach your final destination.

Step #4 – Use habit tracking tools to stay on track

As you go through this process of tackling a single habit at a time, you might find it helpful to use a habit tracking tool that allows you to record and monitor your progress.  A few of my favorite tools for this purpose include:

You might also find it helpful to establish rewards for yourself for completing a given habit for a set number of days.  Knowing that there’s a special treat waiting for you at the end of a three-week long habit-forming road makes the entire process much easier to stick with!

Do you have any suggestions on how to set or stick with the types of habits that will help you to achieve major life goals?  If so, share your recommendations in the comments section below!

Say “No” In Order to Say “Yes” More Often

There’s a reason that so many of us wind up tired, stressed, burned out and overcommitted.  Although we’re taught throughout our lives how to make others happy through our words and actions, that same type of education rarely extends to helping us take care of our own needs.

As a result, we say “Yes” to taking on extra assignments at work – even when we’re swamped with other deadlines.  We say “Yes” to volunteering at a PTA event, simply because we can’t bear to disappoint committee organizers.  We even say “Yes” to family obligations that do nothing besides tax our limited resources and cause undue stress – all because we haven’t figured out how to say “No” effectively!

Well, I’m putting my foot down!  From here on out, I give you permission to say “No” when you need to.  In fact, what you’ll usually find is that saying “No” when you need to allows you to say “Yes” to the right things – freeing up your time and energy to fall into alignment with your desired goals.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as just starting to say “No” after a lifetime of people-pleasing.  It can take some practice to figure out how to decline situations and expectations gracefully.  So if the thought of saying “No” more often makes you feel more than a little uncomfortable, take the following steps in order to learn how to bow out effectively:

Step #1 – Identify your top values

Before we look at how to say “No” more often, it’s important to understand why this is an issue in the first place, as well as what it indicates about our internal priorities.

The problem with saying “Yes” to everything is that it takes up time that could be better allocated to top priorities.  For example, take a situation where you’re repeatedly invited to participate in fundraisers or charity events at your office.  If you have a particular cause that you care about supporting, saying “Yes” to these other opportunities means saying “No” to the one mission you truly believe in.  As a result, your actions fall out of line with your values, leading to discomfort overall.

Really, any time you commit to something, you’re doing it at the expense of another opportunity.  Hanging out with the guys means spending time away from your wife.  Choosing to travel with your immediate family over the holidays might mean missing out on celebrations with extended relatives you rarely see.  Even taking on new projects at work might mean losing steam on initiatives that are more important to the company’s overall success.

This concept is called the “opportunity cost” of missed experiences, and it’s an important component in understanding why it’s important to say “No” in certain situations in order to free up time for higher priorities.

To do learn how to use opportunity costs to your advantage, start by making a list of your top values and priorities (for example, your career, your financial situation, your relationship with your spouse, your friendships, etc.).  Then, choose the top 3-5 values from this list that matter most to you.  In the future, weigh any requests for your time or money against these top priorities and consider saying “No” if they don’t support your most important values.

Step #2 – Identify areas where you’re over-stressed

At the same time, try to pinpoint any sources of excess stress in your life, as feelings of stress can often help clue you in to the situations that aren’t serving your top values.

As an example, suppose you take an inventory of your current life and find that the amount of travel required by your job is pulling you away from your friends and family members – two priorities you’ve identified as higher values in your life than your career.  The amount of stress you’re feeling because of this scenario is indicative of areas you’ve said “Yes” when you should have said “No.”

Of course, your stress points don’t need to be quite that large.  Even something as simple as a cocktail party you feel obligated to attend when you don’t want to could indicate priorities out of whack.  Don’t panic about finding these instances of out-of-order values in your life – simply use them as learning opportunities to pursue future activities and events that are closer in-line with the priorities you’ve established for yourself.

Step #3 – Say “No” to low investment situations

Steps #1 and #2 in this process covered ways to identify situations that are causing undue stress in your life as the result of their disproportionate opportunity cost.  Unfortunately, this investigative work was the easy part – now you’ve got to actually do something about it!

If the thought of telling your boss that you’d like to travel less (or making other major changes to the things you’ve made priorities in your life) is overwhelming, start by saying “No” in low investment situations in order to build up your confidence in this area.

Saying “No” to a PTA event you don’t want to attend, for example, will be much easier than telling your parents you aren’t coming home for the holidays.  Try to rack up at least a couple of “No” wins under your belt before tackling the bigger issues in your life.  Over time and with practice, you’ll find it much easier to say “No” to the things that are sucking time away from your top values and to say “Yes” to the priorities you truly care about.

How to Give Better Compliments

The practice of giving compliments is something of a lost art.  In fact, even the idea of consciously improving your compliment giving skills calls up thoughts of the charm schools and finishing programs found in eras gone by.  However, giving compliments isn’t just for debutantes and overly-indulgent flatterers – it actually builds rapport with the people around you, creating relationship equity that can be cashed in when you need it most.

Of course, if you want to use the art of complimenting to grow your business and personal relationships, you’ve got to brush up your skills in this arena.  Giving a compliment isn’t something that comes naturally to most people, so you’ll want to pay attention to the following guidelines as you polish this necessary skill:

Be specific with your compliments (…but not weirdly so)

The best compliments we receive are those that are specific to ourselves.  Think about it for a second…  Which of the following compliments would you rather receive after giving a presentation to your company’s sales department?

“Great work today!”


“You really nailed it in your presentation today – great job researching all that information!”

The first version comes off as generic and bland, while the second option speaks to a specific achievement on your part.  If you’ve busted your ass to come up with unique and compelling statistics for your sales presentation, you’ll be much more appreciative of a compliment that reflects this effort than one that makes no mention of your hard work.

Whenever possible, try to tailor your compliments to something specific.  Instead of saying, “You look good today,” say, “That’s a great tie.”  Or, instead of telling a date, “I had fun tonight,” try something like, “I really enjoyed the movie you picked out tonight.”  Just don’t be too specific.  Complimenting a first date on how much you love the little mole on the backside of her knee only comes off as creepy!

Watch out for comparative compliments

Another caveat when it comes to compliment giving is to be wary of any messages that can be taken the wrong way.  As an example, saying, “You look good – have you lost weight?” could be taken to mean that the recipient of your compliment didn’t look good the day before (even if that’s not at all what you mean).

Realistically, you’re going to fall into this trap sometimes, and you can’t be responsible for people who overanalyze and take things too far.  Instead, what you can do is to minimize the risk of comparative compliments being taken poorly by following a specific complimenting formula…

Follow a compliment construction formula

If you struggle to make your compliments sound natural, one way to avoid discomfort is to have a formula in mind that you can use to put together future compliments.  For example, try something like this:

[how you feel] + [about something specific] + [why you feel that way]

Let’s take a look at how this works in person.  Suppose you want to compliment a colleague on her assistance pulling the data you needed for a big report.  Following the formula above, you might say:

“I really appreciate your help pulling the data for my report.  I couldn’t have made my deadline without your support.”

Altogether, you’ve got a feeling, something specific that you appreciate and a reason you feel that way.  Try this formula in a few different settings (or come up with a different variation that feels more natural to you) and before you know it, giving valuable, appreciated compliments will become second nature to you.

Choose your moment

One final consideration to keep in mind when it comes to giving compliments is to choose your moment carefully.  Even the best of compliments can go wrong when delivered at an inappropriate time!

For starters, try to give compliments when you’re alone with the person you’re complimenting (or, at least, when you’re sharing a private conversation with him or her).  Giving a compliment to a person who’s surrounded by friends or coworkers puts him on the spot, and puts you at a serious disadvantage should your compliment come out poorly.

At the same time, try to give your compliment as closely in time as possible to the actual event you’re complimenting.  Saying something like, “I loved that shirt you wore last month,” or “Great job on the presentation you gave a few weeks ago,” comes across as either absent-minded or intentionally manipulative – both of which you want to avoid!

Obviously, you won’t always be in a position to get someone alone immediately after something you’d like to compliment him on.  In these cases, let the compliment go, as you don’t actually need to give out a compliment every time that you could.  By simply making it a priority to engage in this practice more throughout your life, you’ll increase your odds of sharing the type of meaningful praise that helps to grow your personal and professional relationships.

It’s Not Time Management, It’s Energy Management That Matters!

Lately, it seems like you can’t stop by a single productivity website without running across yet another article on the importance of good time management.  And sure, managing your time is important – but it’s only part of the picture!

Suppose you sit down and map out a schedule that you’ll apply to your work life over the coming week.  Perhaps you’ve read some article that says morning people are most productive, so you design a schedule of future habits that involves working on priority projects first thing in the morning, and then trickling down to less important activities as the day progresses.

For all intents and purposes, this represents good time management.  But what if you happen to be an afternoon or evening person who hits his stride around 4:00pm?  In this case, waking up early and chaining yourself to the desk because some productivity expert told you to isn’t going to do you any good!

Instead, you need to map out your schedule to your highest energy periods.  Not only will you get more done this way, you’ll fight the fatigue and disinterest that have sunk more than a few well-intentioned time management plans throughout business history.

Here’s how to start planning your time according to the principles of energy management, rather than time management:

Step #1 – Identify your peak productivity periods

First things first…  We aren’t all built the same, which is why it’s so frustrating that the modern workplace has many of us stuck in cubicles from 9:00am to 5:00pm.  Instead, we all have naturally different times when we’re feeling on top of things (and, conversely, naturally different times when we want to crawl under our desks to take a nap).

The key to matching your energy management to your work load is to identify those times when you tend to have the most energy.  Some of you will already have your peak periods figured out, but others will need to spend a few days tracking how their energy levels fluctuate throughout the day.

Fortunately, this isn’t difficult to do.  Simply check in with yourself every hour or so and rate your natural energy level.  If it’s helpful, keep these records stored in an Excel spreadsheet or other tracking program so that you can compare them from day-to-day.  Keep an eye on any trends you see over time, and you should eventually be able to identify a pattern of peak productive times and low energy periods.

Step #2 – Find ways to boost your energy

Now, while it’s true that all of us have internal circadian rhythms that control when we’re naturally most productive, there are also plenty of things that we can do to boost our overall energy levels.  For example, we can:

  • Skip the coffee and donuts.  Serious boosts of caffeine and sugar might provide a temporary surge in energy, but they’re short-lived and lead to crashes later on.  In general, it’s best to wean yourself off of these items, rather than developing a dependency on them.
  • Eat energy-producing foods.  Beyond laying off the sugar, try to sneak a few more super foods into your daily diet.  Doing so will give you a natural energy surge that will help you to maintain productivity – even outside of your peak hours.
  • Get enough sleep.  Pulling all-nighters isn’t a sustainable strategy – even if you’re still a college student!  Think about the fact that some studies equate sleepy driving with being as dangerous as drunk driving.  If you aren’t any better off when you’re tired than when you’re drunk, it’s easy to see why getting the sleep you needed to sustain your overall energy levels is more important than staying up late in order to fit more into your day.

Step #3 – Align your work life with your natural energy fluctuations

Once you’ve gathered enough information on when you’re most productive throughout the day and how you can boost your energy levels using natural stimulants, try to schedule your work life with your regular energy fluctuations.

For example, if you find that you’re the most focused around 10:00am and experience a natural energy lull around 2:30pm, try to schedule any necessary meetings for the mid-afternoon in order to keep your mornings free for productive work on your top priorities.  Or, if you find that you’re more mentally alert at night than you are in the morning, see if your boss will be flexible enough to allow you to work from home some days.

Obviously, you may not have this luxury in your workplace – and you’ll likely come across a few meetings or other time-sucks that are unavoidably scheduled for your peak productivity times.  However, by understanding when your most engaged times are and making an attempt to base your schedule around these cycles as much as possible, you’ll get much more done as the result of proper energy management (rather than through arbitrary time management activities).

7 Business Books You Must Read

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of people who have wound up in business-related fields without any type of formal training in the subject.  Sure, I’ve worked with a few MBA grads in my day, but for the most part, the people who wind up in management positions come from a more diverse variety of backgrounds than you might expect.

As a result, plenty of today’s corporate leaders lack a full understanding of the foundational principles of business.  While they may have picked up enough on the job to be successful, chances are they’ll still benefit from knowledge gained by reading through the following classic business books:

Book #1 – “Good to Great” – Jim Collins

“Good to Great” is a seminal business strategy book written by industry authority Jim Collins.  The text focuses on case studies of companies that have made the leap from “good” companies to “great” companies, in addition to sustaining these results for at least fifteen years.  By comparing successful institutions like Coca Cola, Merck and Intel, Collins was able to draw conclusions on the leadership styles and corporate cultures needed to achieve greatness – making this a fascinating read for managers at all levels.

Book #2 – “How to Win Friends and Influence People” – Dale Carnegie

Let’s face it – we could all stand to be a bit more persuasive in our careers.  That’s why I’m always quick to recommend Dale Carnegie’s classic text, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

Inside, you’ll find expert advice on how to communicate more effectively – which Carnegie sees as a more important predictor of business success than great ideas or instincts.  It’s a great choice for anyone who struggles to connect with others (and therefore misses out on the substantial business benefits of being able to do so).

Book #3 – “Think and Grow Rich” – Napoleon Hill

In “Think and Grow Rich,” author Napoleon Hill shares the sixteen lessons he learned from studying individuals who became self-made successes throughout their lives.  Even if your primary goal isn’t to become financially wealthy, you’ll still find plenty of great information on how to achieve greater success in all areas of your life within this classic, Depression-era book.

Book #4 – “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – Steven Covey

Surely you’ve heard of Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” before, as it’s featured on nearly every list of “business books to read” ever written.

But even if you’ve seen it mentioned before, how many of you can say that you’ve not only read it, but are actively implementing the positive habits described in the book?  Chances are, we could all use a refresher on the guiding principles of effectiveness outlined in Covey’s text – not to mention the kick in the pants needed to put them into action!

Book #5 – “The Magic of Thinking Big” – David Schwartz

The first four books on this list have been mostly strategy-oriented – that is, you should read them for concrete ideas on how to improve your personal productivity and business growth.

However, Schwartz’s entry to this list – “The Magic of Thinking Big” – is a little different.  Instead of focusing on business success, this book provides both the motivation and the specific techniques needed to help you achieve satisfaction in all areas of your life.  If you’re feeling stuck in your current career path or find yourself unable to get out of a rut in your personal life, it’s an absolute “must read!”

Book #6 – “Awaken the Giant Within” – Tony Robbins

As with “The Magic of Thinking Big,” Tony Robbins’ classic text, “Awaken the Giant Within” is based on the idea that we’re all innately powerful and talented, but that we occasionally need help channeling this inner power into tangible benefits within our lives.

“Awaken the Giant Within” is a long book, and the amount of research covered can feel a bit technical.  It’s also one that you need to be ready to apply to your life in order to get the greatest possible benefit from the book.  However, if you’re willing to make the slog through it and implement the principles described within Robbins’ book, you’ll find yourself better prepared to tackle major challenges that arise within your life.

Book #7 – “Getting Things Done” – David Allen

Finally, add another entry to the “read and then implement” category with David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done.”  “Getting Things Done” – or “GTD” as it’s referred to by its practitioners – is a method of organization and task management that’s widely praised by both users and productivity experts alike.

If you find yourself struggling to maintain order and clarity within your business and professional lives, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this classic book today!

Are there any other books you’d like to see added to this list?  Share your own business book recommendations in the comments section below!

Self-Promotion for Normal People: Earn Recognition without Being an Asshole

These days, you can’t simply sit back, do your job well and wait for the praise to roll in.  In today’s tight economy, you’ve got to make others aware of your accomplishments – lest you wind up ahead of your office’s resident ass kisser in line for a lay-off notice.

But with self-promotion – as with so many other things in the current business environment – there’s a right way, and a very wrong way to go about doing it!

Think about it for a second…  How many of you know somebody who just won’t shut up about the amazing things he’s done (even if they aren’t all that awesome in the first place)?  You can call it “managing up” or you can call it “brown nosing” – either way, it’s frustrating for fellow employees to be around and for managers to tolerate.

You don’t have to go down this road.  In fact, it’s very possible to promote your accomplishments and earn the recognition you deserve without coming across like a complete tool.  To see how exactly to do this; give any of the following strategies a try:

Strategy #1 – Phrase updates to mention the work you’ve done

One of the sneakiest ways to let people know that you’re on top of your game is to work your accomplishments into the updates you give to others.

Let’s look at an example…

Suppose you’ve just finished work on a big report that had you working all hours of the night.  When you run into your boss the next morning, which of the two following statements do you think puts you and your achievement in a better light?

“Hey boss!  I had to put in a few 80-hour workweeks to do it, but I just finished that report you wanted.  I can’t wait for you to see what a great job I did!”


“Hey boss.  Now that I’m finished with the report you requested, is there anything else I can help you with?”

One of these two options makes you look like an asshole; the other showcases your efforts without coming across as “braggy.”  Guess which one’s going to come across a hell of a lot better to the person who ultimately makes the decision about your continued employment??  Basically, cut the crap and start finding ways to showcase your accomplishments in a positive, mature way.

Strategy #2 – Give credit where credit is due

Another shortcut that assholes often take when it comes to self-promotion is taking credit for other peoples’ work.  This is especially common when work involves committee or team work, as it’s all too easy for one employee to start making bold proclamations to senior management regarding his involvement in the project, as soon as other team members are out of ear shot.

Obviously, this usually backfires.  Not only does “Captain America” usually alienate his coworkers to the point that it jeopardizes future projects, managers are usually pretty quick to catch on to this type of behavior.  And really, the last thing you want to be is the guy that all the managers laugh at behind closed doors!

Instead of being quick to accept all the praise for group achievements, go out of your way to say good things about your coworkers.  It might seem risky – especially given how much of today’s career opportunities rely on strong performance reviews and demonstrated accomplishments – but trust me.  Managers notice when a single employee repeatedly appears on successful teams, and that recognition will translate into appreciation.

Strategy #3 – Announce achievements quietly

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be recognized for your hard work in some way, the last thing you want to do is run your mouth off to the entire office.  Again, this type of overly-aggressive behavior is only going to alienate your coworkers and frustrate your manager.

But, at the same time, you don’t want these achievements to go entirely unnoticed, as some level of recognition is a vital part of ensuring that your efforts result in tangible career benefits.  Consider any of the following strategies, should you find yourself in this position:

  • If you complete a training course or receive a small award certificate, ask your manager to have a copy of the documentation placed in your personnel file.
  • If you earn a larger reward or trophy, place it on your desk without calling attention to it.  Believe me; your coworkers will notice!
  • If you earn a promotion, title change or other achievement, update your resume and online business profiles (for example, your career page on LinkedIn).  Pass on new copies to your business acquaintances where appropriate, and trust that these close contacts will notice the changes in your status.

If you’re struggling to find a balance between self-promotion for normal people and coming off like an asshole, get in the habit of asking yourself, “What would I think if my coworkers took the actions I’m considering?”  If your answer is, “I’d think he’s a douche bag,” find a more subtle way to earn recognition for your accomplishments.

The New Networking: Using Technology to Forge Connections

These days, we do just about everything online – from ordering food to maintaining connections with old friends, and even running entire companies from the comfort of our computer chairs.  And yet for some reason, when it comes to the subject of networking, plenty of business people view this practice as an “in person only” type of thing.

In fact, there are plenty of different ways to utilize technology to conduct the same type of networking that was once only carried out in stale ballrooms at business conferences.  Online networking represents a great opportunity for business professionals who are pressed for time, those with shyness issues or

Step #1 – Select your online networking venue

When it comes to online networking, there are dozens of different approaches you can take across several hundred social websites.

For example, you could focus your online networking efforts exclusively on LinkedIn by participating in industry Groups and sending messages to other professionals with whom you have some shared connections.  Alternatively, if your industry has a centralized social website (for example, “Legal On Ramp,” which serves the law community), building a presence on one of these sites may make more sense in terms of potential connections.

And heck, don’t count out traditional social networks, like Facebook, Twitter and Google+.  As more and more professionals begin seeing these websites as legitimate business tools, the number of business introductions that occur via social media sites is sure to increase.

Step #2 – Present yourself professionally

Once you’ve decided where and how you’ll go about forging your online connections, take a few seconds to assess the first impression given off by your existing digital presence.

Unlike in face-to-face interactions, the way you’ll be judged in the digital world isn’t tied to your hair style, the way you’re dressed or your personal mannerisms.  Instead, new contacts must go off of your profile picture, email address and general use of language in order to form the same impression of who you are and what you stand for.

As a result, if your profile picture comes from a wild Saturday night at the bar and your written communications are more suited to texting than to business language, you probably aren’t going to be taken seriously by your new online contacts!

To prevent this from happening, clean up your profiles (or at least improve your privacy settings so that what happened in Vegas actually stays in Vegas) and make sure the language you use in any professional conversation online uses proper spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation.

Step #3 – Target the right people

When you network online, you’ll have access to a much wider range of potential contacts than you ever would in real life.  While a local business networking event may only draw the same 10-20 people that show up every time for the free cocktails, networking online has the ability to put you in touch with professionals from around the world.

Of course, you don’t necessarily want to make the acquaintance of every single person in your industry, which is why one of the other major perks of online networking is that it allows you to laser-target only the people with whom you’d like to form new connections.

So before you start reaching out to new contacts, take the time to think about the people you’d most like to be in touch with.  If, for example, you’re looking to move into a new industry, identify professionals within 2-3 organizations that have the connections you’ll need.  Or, if you’re looking for a new mentor within your field, use services like LinkedIn that will allow you to search out new contacts according to existing connections and job titles.

Step #4 – Build relationships with low commitment interactions

Now, if you were networking in person, you wouldn’t immediately bully these new contacts into providing you with information on key business or job opportunities.  Instead, you’d open conversations with new networking partners with a bit of small talk – only attempting to cash in on your new contact’s knowledge once a stronger relationship had developed.

The same thing goes for online networking.   “Woo” the people in your online business network by exchanging messages of simple pleasantries, by promoting their digital content to your own online followers or by commenting on their most recent business blog posts (where applicable).  Allow these relationships to develop naturally before you attempt to extract any type of value from them, in order to avoid alienating the connections you’ve worked so hard to build.

Step #5 – Transition your online relationships to real life

Finally, whenever possible, make the effort to advance the relationships you’ve built online into real-world connections.

Obviously, you can’t do this with contacts that are located around the world.  However, if a new network member lives in your area, ask if it’s possible to meet up for coffee or for a working lunch.  One of the few disadvantages of online networking is that the relationships formed through these services tend not to be as strong as person-to-person interactions, which could put you at a disadvantage compared to the real-life members of your contact’s network.

To avoid missing out on the benefits of real-life connections, do your best to move your online relationships to the offline world.  Don’t be pushy, but do make an effort to get to know people away from the computer in order to form the types of connections that will lead to business or personal benefits down the road.

7 Prompts to Jump Start Small Talk

No one really likes making small talk – except, I suppose for the rare extrovert who’s done amazing things with his life and can’t wait to share with others.  But for the rest of us, carrying out these frequently-tedious conversations is, at worst, a waste of time and, at best, a part of the relationship building process that simply can’t be avoided.

And since there’s no way to avoid it (short of holing up at home and living out your remaining years like Howard Hughes), you’re better off making an effort to improve your small talk skills.  To help get you started, here are a few specific prompts that you can keep in your back pocket and pull out whenever awkward conversations start to get the best of you:

Prompt #1 – “What are you up to these days?”

Simple, yet effective.  What I love about this small talk prompt is that it provides your networking contact with the flexibility to take the conversation in any direction he chooses – whether that’s “shop talk” about his job or more personal details about his home life.

It also meets the key small talk criteria of being an open ended question.  Worded a different way, as “Are you keeping busy these days?” gives conversation partners the easy out of a “yes or no” question, which should be avoided at all costs when it comes to small talk!

Prompt #2 – “Have you seen the recent news story about…?”

Discussing world events can provide a nice, arbitrary place to begin a small talk conversation (especially if you don’t know your networking contact well enough to inquire about his personal life).  But be cautious!

As with all light conversations, the subjects of religion, politics and money should be avoided at all costs.  This is sort of a no-brainer, but saying something like, “I can’t wait for Obama/Romney to win the election” isn’t likely to keep your conversation smoothly.  Instead, stick to lighter news topics – like whether you expect the Giants or the Tigers to win the World Series.

Prompt #3 – “How do you know the hosts?”

If you’re mingling at a private party, asking new conversation partners how they’ve arrived at the event can be both a good conversation starter and a useful way to learn new things about the people in your life.

For example, if you’re at a party thrown by your boss and ask a fellow attendee how he knows your supervisor, you may be surprised to find out that their initial introduction happened on a deep sea fishing expedition.  With this new piece of information, you’ve now got a conversation starter to use with your boss, should you ever need to make polite conversation.

Prompt #4 – “How long have you been in the area?”

When it comes to small talk, keep in mind that most people really enjoy talking about themselves – they often just need a little prompting to get started!

For this reason, asking about a person’s origins can be a fun one.  Most people will jump at the chance to share how their personal histories led them to your town, potentially setting off an interesting and lengthy conversation.

Prompt #5 – “What do you do for fun?”

Yes, this one can backfire – as you’ll occasionally use it on the type of “all work, no play” person who can’t wait to tell you about how he’s just too busy to have fun these days.

However, in most cases, asking people about the hobbies they’re into provides great fodder for conversation and may even garner you some great recommendations on fun things to do in your area.

Prompt #6 – “Really?  Tell me more about that…”

This prompt isn’t a conversation starter, but it’s a great phrase to pull out later on in order to keep your interactions going.

As an example, if a networking contact responded to Prompt #5 with a mention of a recent family vacation, asking, “Tell me more about that” both keeps the conversation going and gives you more information on future vacation options.  Just be sure to mix things up every once in a while so that you don’t wind up sounding like a “Tell me more!” robot.

Prompt #7 – “Let me introduce you to…”

Sometimes, the reality of small talk involves conversations that clearly aren’t going anywhere.  Maybe you can’t find any common ground, or maybe your new contact’s BO is so overwhelmingly powerful that it cancels out any potential networking benefits.  Whatever the case may be, this prompt gives you an opportunity to excuse yourself from a conversation gracefully, while still appearing to provide value for both parties.

To give an effective introduction, don’t just share both parties’ names – give a reason for the introduction as well.  Saying, “Jason, meet Benjamin,” and then fleeing reflects much more poorly on you than sharing something like, “Jason, meet Benjamin.  He’s a Java developer like you.”  Since you’ve provided a commonality, you’ve given Jason and Benjamin something to talk about – giving you the chance to make a graceful exit.

If you still don’t feel confident about your ability to deftly manage small talk, try to remember that nearly everybody gets nervous about maintaining conversations with strangers.  Most people will be so thrilled that you’ve taken the lead using your small talk prompts that they’ll be happy to respond to your prompts – boosting your confidence and reinforcing your newly-developed small talking skills.

What Can Sports Fans Teach You About Succeeding in Business?

Take a look at any group of dedicated, committed sports fans, and it’s obvious that there are some pretty tight bonds that form between fans and their teams.  Sports fans don’t just follow their teams’ activities passively – they publicly announce their affiliations with clothing, social networking posts and regular attendance at games.

And while your business probably doesn’t have games or publicly-available logo wear, wouldn’t it be great if you could build this same type of passion with your company’s customers?

The following are five lessons that all businesses should take from the way sports fans interact with their chosen teams.  I hope you find them useful when it comes to developing brand loyalty between your business and its customers!

Lesson #1 – Good brands are transformative

The visual image of groups of beer-bellied, bare-chested men with team logos painted on their torsos is a staple of sports imagery – but take a second to appreciate just how unusual that is.  Really, is there anywhere else in the world where these groups of men would feel as comfortable letting it all hang out in this way?

Good corporate brands can achieve the same level of commitment by making customers believe in things they wouldn’t otherwise.  Middle-aged men don’t by sports cars because they like the paint color – they buy them because they’re already picturing the sexy blonde sitting in the front seat.  Because they believe in the brand, they’re willing to commit a significant amount of financial resources just to participate with such a transformative brand.

So when it comes to your advertising efforts, stop thinking about what people want to buy or what features your latest product has.  Think about how you can make your customers feel something, and then let that spirit of transformation guide your promotional campaigns.

Lesson #2 – Traditions can be magical

When taken objectively, plenty of well-loved sports traditions seem downright silly.  From ceremonial coin tosses to annual match-ups played to decide the winner of some arbitrary trophy, there’s a lot that goes on in the world of sports that doesn’t actually relate to the mechanics of the game.

However, it is these traditions that make sports as enjoyable as they are for fans.  What would baseball be without a beer and a hot dog?  Would attending a live game be as fun without a team’s standard chants and cheers?

In fact, businesses can learn a thing or two from the adoration that sports teams are able to generate through the strategic use of traditions.  While your corporate traditions don’t need to include trophies or cheers, putting together a few memorable traditions – perhaps based around holidays or annual events – can help to increase the loyalty that exists between your business and its customers.

Lesson #3 – Criticism will be loud and public

While companies are often called out on their perceived failings and misdeeds, no entity faces as much public criticism as the sports team.  When plays go wrong, coaches and their star players are called out in a variety of media sources, and are brought to task in weekly press conferences that break down their mistakes in a very public way.

If you think that it must be fun to get on stage, week after week, to apologize for disappointing fans – think again!

But despite how unenjoyable being ripped apart by the media must be, coaches and players learn to develop the thick skin needed to brush off public criticism.  Your business must do the same thing when your brand is condemned in the press or on social media websites.  Even if your receive an unnecessarily bad review on Google+ or Yelp, remember that people will be watching your reaction – so stay as classy and professional as sports figures do in their post-game interviews.

Lesson #4 – There are always going to be haters

No matter how well-renowned your sports program is or how many top-tier athletes your recruiting class has been able to sign, there will always be team fans who disagree with your decisions.

Similarly, when it comes to business, you’ll always have detractors who seek to tarnish your brand’s reputation at every turn.  Maybe these people had bad experiences with your company in the past, or maybe they’re just mean-spirited.  Either way, you can take a page out of a sports teams’ book by responding in a tactful manner and doing your best to improve your performance in the future.

Lesson #5 – …but you’ll always have “true blue” fans as well

Of course, on the flip side of that argument, you’ll also find that both teams and businesses benefit from the loyal support of “true blue” fans.  No matter how poorly a team plays during a given season, there will always be diehard supporters who buy tickets, watch games and brag about their underdog affiliations on Facebook and Twitter.

As a business owner or professional, you’ve got these fans in your life as well.  However, if you want to continue to maintain their support, you need to identify who they are and what you need to do to keep these relationships strong.  Take the time to recognize and reward these fans’ commitment to your company, and you’ll see the goodwill returned in the form of repeat business and increased referrals.